Cyra McFadden: Full Speed Ahead

“Damn the torpedoes.” Cyra McFadden on Main Dock | photo by Caroline McFadden | post by Larry Clinton

Long time Main Dock resident Cyra McFadden passed away recently, leaving behind an “only in Marin” legacy. In the 70s, Cyra wrote a satirical look at the New Age heyday hereabouts, which first appeared each week in the Pacific Sun. It was eventually published by Knopf in a spiral bound, cardboard-covered, illustrated novel titled The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, and became a national sensation: a graphic novel long before its time. Cyra was thrust into the harsh glare of celebrity, and that came with some unpleasant surprises.

In a 2016 oral history for the Mill Valley Historical Society, Cyra recounted the mixed reception of the novel, and recalled the shock of suddenly becoming a public figure.

“Lots of people were very supportive and thought the book was funny, which was its intention, but there were a lot of people who took it very personally,” Cyra told interviewer Debra Schwartz. “There were editorials in the IJ that I should love it or leave it, and there were angry letters. I thought this would blow over quickly. Mind you, I was a very new writer; I’d had no public life; I was totally unprepared. People threw eggs at our house.

“I got late night phone calls. One from a drunken neighbor, telling me what a disgrace I was. I had to unlist my telephone. The mailman dragged sacks of mail up the walk. And I had to say, ‘Is it ticking?’ Because a lot of it was really angry, nasty mail. So it suddenly just jerked our family into the limelight in a way that we all found uncomfortable. It was horrible for a teenage daughter, at that point.”

The book was made into a movie, which Cyra had no part of. In fact, she walked out of the film’s premiere, and loved a one-sentence critique by the flick’s star, comic Martin Mull: “They were showing the movie on airplanes, and people were still trying to walk out.”

But the Serial wasn’t Cyra’s only literary triumph. The daughter of a traveling rodeo announcer, she was raised on the traveling cowboy circuit. She described her upbringing in “Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir,” which was a 1987 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

That memoir is still in print and so is “The Serial,” in standard book format and digital edition. The film “Serial” is available on Apple TV and Amazon Prime. While it’s not faithful to Cyra’s novel, it’s a hilarious period piece in its own right, with lots of recognizable scenery.

After moving to Waldo Point Harbor in 1997, Cyra wrote an essay for San Francisco Magazine about the vicissitudes of waterfront living. I was honored to reprint that piece in the Floating Times. Here are some excerpts which will resonate with anyone who’s spent any time on our docks:

Rolling floors, resident sea gulls — life on the water takes some getting used to.

Sound travels amazing distances over water, so people who live in the Marina may already know that a few months ago, I moved from Noe Valley to a houseboat in Sausalito. They heard El Nino slamming my new home into the dock, followed by my screams. As I staggered like a drunk across the floor of my plunging, rolling-“floating home”— the term preferred by the homeowners’ association —I longed for the tamer perils of city life, such as muggers, car thieves, and red-light runners. There’s much about houseboat living that appeals to me, but riding out gale-force winds isn’t on the list.

A little planning would have eased the transition from land to water, but l moved the way I fall in love: Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. In my right mind, I wouldn’t have moved to a houseboat during the worst storms of the century. I wasn’t in my right mind.

On the plus side, I learned that I don’t get seasick, something that it might have behooved me to check out. On the minus side, I came that close; for days I could have sworn fish were swimming in my stomach. “Focus on a fixed point,” counseled a friend who’s an avid sailor. There were no fixed points. Inside and out, the world was in motion.

On a cold, rainy, gusty morning, when the boat was pitching so much I could barely stay on my feet, I called another friend, one who’s lived on a houseboat for years. “Is this as bad as it gets?” I asked, longing for reassurance. He cackled maniacally and did his imitation of the Ancient Mariner. ‘Eh, they say the lucky ones die”. I threw a toothbrush into a bag and fled to the sunny Caribbean for two weeks.

When I returned, my houseboat and I entered a honeymoon phase. Relatively speaking, the weather improved. I unpacked, slept the deep sleep of the innocent or at least the naïve — and went for long walks along the marshes. From a book on water birds, I learned to tell a blue heron from a blue heeler, and, in case El Nino should come back, bought a powerful flashlight and some rope. Thus equipped, if it did return and knocked out the power again, at least I’d be able to see to hang myself. Peace at last.

After a couple of hours running errands one Saturday morning, I returned to a weirdly altered landscape. In the berth next to mine, where a battered small boat had been tied, stood a new one the size of the Exxon Valdez. Still under construction, it blocked my light and views and crowded so close I could reach out my window and grasp the rail of its entry ramp. I’d been keelhauled. It hadn’t occurred to me that just by hitching them up to tug-boats, you can move houseboats around like toy boats in a bathtub.

Heavy construction isn’t permitted in a berth. The monstrous boat had to move out. It’s returning any day, though, and rather than get out the rope, I’ve taken out a loan against the houseboat I live in and bought a second “floating home.” It’s in a wider berth than mine, with a water view that can’t be blocked. My plan is to switch the boats in their berths, then turn around and sell the second boat, now installed in my old berth.

My San Francisco house never moved. I never had pigeons in my bedroom or gulls cracking clams on my roof or wondered if the holding tank for the sewage system was full and if it was time for a service called, so help me, Pump-A-Turd. In retrospect, I don’t know how I stood the tedium.

Cyra successfully relocated her floating home and lived happily on Main Dock for 27 years. Her daughter, Caroline, also lives in Waldo Point Harbor.